Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Not for sale

Government should stay out of the newspaper business

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

In an era when more business enterprises than you ever dreamed of are being auctioned off to Uncle Sam, who's to say what shouldn't be on the bidding block?

If it's now OK for the government to be making and selling Corvettes and Chevy pickups, but deciding that Saturns and Oldsmobiles have no future; if it's OK for Washington to decide which banks are paying their top officers too much and which ones are within the bounds of propriety; if it's OK for Congress to decide (however indirectly) that John Doe, with no income and no assets, qualifies for a home loan, but that Jack Smith, with no income and no assets, doesn't qualify . . .

It goes on. No one knows yet whether Uncle Sam will soon be in charge at least of our health insurance system, if not the whole medical system itself. If that happens, another 17 percent of our economy will come under the watchful eye of whichever political party has the most appealing-if not the most competent-candidates in any election cycle.

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So I ask: If in a few short months all those unthinkable transfers can happen, why not just one more? Specifically, why shouldn't we also move quickly now to a government takeover of the nation's newspapers?

Goodness knows, they're needy enough. The cumulative capital value of all newspapers in the United States is said to have dropped 83 percent just during the 12 months of 2008. What used to be a sure-fire investment has been transformed by the internet into a sure loser. Just apply the "pinch test": Pinch this morning's paper, and you'll be shocked how skinny it is. At least 50 daily newspapers are said right now to be in some stage of bankruptcy proceedings.

So, of course. Uncle Sam to the rescue! Why not? As the Columbia Journalism Review concluded in a discussion of so obvious a possibility: "Journalism and journalists need to let go of their aversion to Uncle Sam."

But here's why not: The very idea of a governmentally subsidized newspaper should be both offensive and terrifying to anyone who understands the historic role of the news media in America and the true significance of First Amendment freedom of the press.

For hundreds of years in Western society, the press has properly been seen as a counterbalance to government. After taking note of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, thoughtful social observers have also referred to a "Fourth Estate"-journalists who keep the other segments of society honest by digging for "the rest of the story."

It would be wrong for me to let the year 2009 pass-the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin-without noting in this context how much that man contributed to that purifying role for the press. WORLD writer Warren Smith notes in a chapter he's just written for a new book that while Martin Luther may be more widely known as a champion of the Reformation, it wasn't long before Lutheranism became the state church in Germany. That was a lot less likely to happen with Calvin's followers, where development of a journalism independent of government control was a key concept and a foundational preparation even for secular modern journalism.

Advocates of government subsidies to newspapers, of course, line up with their calming reassurances. They note that National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System both regularly get perhaps 15 percent of their operating budgets from the federal government. But that's about all the argument we need for our side of the issue. I also have friends who remind me that even WORLD magazine gets some benefit from the U.S. Postal Service both for our use of second-class mail and for our role as a nonprofit mailer. But again, for anyone to use the Postal Service as an example of how things might get better under federal auspices strikes me as nervy indeed.

Or I hear that I shouldn't worry about government-­sponsored media because it won't be all that different from government-sponsored education. "They'll be objective," I'm told. "They'll be even-handed. They'll present every side of the story." Sure. Just like state schools are so even-handed about creation and evolution, about abortion and same-sex marriage, and about global warming.

Yes, indeed. I'll be ready for state-subsidized newspapers just about when I'll also decide that a budget crisis in my local church would be best handled by an annual subsidy from the state or federal government. And for those folks with the audacity to argue that churches already get such a subsidy because of their tax-exempt status, I'll say their ignorance about whose money it is in the first place is just one more reason we still need a free and robust press.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Joel Belz, click here.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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